Denver restaurant workers explain what it was like to work during COVID

This time last year, thousands of Colorado servers, cooks and bartenders were laid off overnight as the state shut down restaurants indefinitely and braced for the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Around 94,000 industry workers — a third of the state’s restaurant workforce — lost their jobs over the course of the next 12 months, according to the Colorado Restaurant Association, though those numbers are starting to rebound in 2021.

With restaurants continuing to reopen, expand seating capacities and serve alcohol (and food) later into the night, more workers are back on the front lines of the lingering COVID-19 pandemic. They’re also next in line, as of mid-March, to be vaccinated.

We caught up with a handful of hospitality professionals, from baristas to chefs and managers, to find out how they’re doing a year after one of the worst days in restaurant history.

Some had one foot out the industry’s door, others had stepped away entirely, and still there were those who looked forward not only to their current restaurant work but to opening their own food businesses in the future.

We feature their first-person thoughts and stories here, gathered over the start of 2021 and edited and condensed for print.

Coleman Sisk

Barista, bartender and more at Hudson Hill

I’ve worked in restaurants and bars since high school, from McDonald’s to Morimoto. Both my parents worked and actually met in the industry here in Colorado, so in a way, restaurants can feel like a home for me. When the shut-downs first happened last spring, I found myself in a better financial situation than my peers at other bars and restaurants, and I have Hudson Hill’s owner Jake (Soffes) to thank for that. He did a lot of research, applied for a lot of grants and even wrote checks for the hours to be lost in that pay period. I went on unemployment but returned to work for take-out drinks just a month later. I was grateful for the work.

There are times I get discouraged when the amount of extra effort that goes into serving someone today gets overlooked. I think the pandemic created a divide between staff and guests: when one party shows up to the restaurant to pay their bills and the other for recreation. (But) it’s more than just the exchange of goods, we need to keep each other safe.

Annie Sage-Clontz

Former server at Coperta and Beast + Bottle, recently hired at a tech startup

(My partner) suffered a major seizure (last) February and received an epilepsy diagnosis
shortly after we both lost our serving jobs with the mandated shutdowns. He was later
permanently laid off, and I declined a return to my serving position because I couldn’t risk
bringing COVID home to him.

I don’t want to overly romanticize restaurant work … the organizational wizardry, expert communication skills, and emotional labor it takes to be an excellent server is rarely valued, and the role is stigmatized to the point that I’ve been asked what I want to be when I grow up while pushing 30, working as a lead server and kitchen expeditor at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Chicago. An employer-sponsored retirement plan has never been available to me, despite working for some of the top chefs in the nation. I didn’t have the option to elect a health benefit plan until 2015 outside of the short-lived health plans I received from a hotel and country club over a decade ago, and I never saw a single paid sick day until 2018. I’ve deferred the ideas of homeownership and family planning while going to school during the day and working late into the nights, unable to significantly save for the future — all while I waited to graduate as a post-traditional student and find “a big girl job,” as if the restaurant career I had been cultivating with all my heart and soul wasn’t good enough. Because by the standards of most, it wasn’t.

I’m looking forward to my transition into the tech startup world. The position … provides excellent benefits that will allow me to take care of my household in a way I’ve never experienced before. I’d like to point out that while I’ve had experiences with programming and learning new technologies within my Geography degree program, I largely referred to restaurant anecdotes (when applying for jobs) to describe transferrable skills and qualifications. Restaurant work is valuable across the board, and my hope is that we can begin to shift public perception to accept that fact outside of the glorification of celebrity chefs, bartenders, and sommeliers.

Zach Farnsworth

Cook and former kitchen manager at Joy Hill

I’ve been making pizza for 15 years. I started at Joy Hill last March, came in, helped them open and then two weeks later we were shut down. It was really, really hard at first. There were four of us working 70-, 80-hour weeks, and that kind of continued through the summer as we started to add people back on (to the schedule). I had some friends who were unemployed who would say, “You’re lucky you haven’t had a day off.” And I would think, “You’re lucky you get a break.”

I asked to step down (from a kitchen management position) to free up days and spend time on my own thing. I was planning to open my (pizza) shop last fall. Now I’m just trying to take it slow and looking for pop-up locations. Nobody’s trying to bounce around jobs now. But there’s (a handful) of shops in the area that are competitive, and I think there’s room for twice that. I love pizza, it’s my passion, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Beth Hardin

General manager at Streets Denver

(Restaurant workers) can’t work from home and are in constant, close contact with (the) unmasked public; likely have sub-par to zero health insurance, no benefits; and if they don’t work, they don’t get paid. (We) are regularly getting yelled at and assaulted by the same public who begged for bars and restaurants to be open. Our industry is in the death throes with more and more establishments closing regularly. People can’t afford not to work because they’ve exhausted unemployment or can’t get the government to give them their money, and when they do work, it’s for a fraction of what they made before.

Ask how many people in this industry know someone who has died or (died by) suicide during this pandemic. It’s taking a financial, physical, professional and mental toll (that’s) overlooked — the added stress of regulations and increased financial strain, plus the isolation and loss of the support systems we all have built. Our operating owner (John Elliott) died in November. Between that and the financial hardships of COVID, our business has had some rough times.

RELATED: Streets of London owner John Elliott dies after contracting COVID-19 a second time

Maggie Maxwell

Currently unemployed, soon-to-be general manager at a new Denver restaurant

I’ve had latent anxiety about working indoors since the worst day ever on March 16, 2020. At the beginning, I was freaked out about being indoors with my coworkers while we were take-out only. We were all flying blind. As we learned more, unfortunately it didn’t make me feel any better. I’ve not dined indoors since last year, personally. I have a hard time squaring the expectation that someone else should serve me when I’m scared to do the same for them. It seems unfair.

I’m at a bit of a crossroads, as I think many of us are. I’d always thought that if you knew how to serve, cook or bartend, your employability was indestructible; you could support yourself anywhere in the world. COVID proved that notion wrong for sure.

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